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Claudia Quintet and the CSO's first "Out of the Box" event

Not Quite Classical: A memorable pair of jazz/classical fusion events, all in one week



It's safe to say that the new season is back in full swing. As of last week, all of the major Charleston Symphony series had begun, and almost every other major classical entity in town (like the College of Charleston's School of the Arts) is chugging along nicely.

Two of the performances I caught last week fall into what you could call the "jazz/classical fusion" category. Last Tuesday, an absolutely amazing ensemble of New York area musicians performed at the College of Charleston's Recital Hall. The Claudia Quintet were brought to town by a joint effort of the New Music Collective and the jazz department at CofC. They played pieces written by the group's fabulous drummer, John Hollenbeck — also an accomplished and utterly original composer. Between that and the absolutely brilliant players, this is some of the most powerful and engaging new music I've experienced lately.

Its rhythmic and harmonic groundwork is carefully planned and scored. There's no other way you could achieve the kind of metric variety and complexity found in this music — not to mention the arcane harmonic patterns. Yet the music still has a distinctly improvisational quality to it, thanks to the amazing musicians that perform it. And I'm talking real musicians, like major conservatory grads and virtuosos with glittering careers of their own. Chris Speed played a wicked clarinet and tenor sax; Ted Reichman proved to be a real virtuoso of the accordion; Matt Moran did stupefying things with his vibraphone, and guest organ bassist Gary Versace was a big part of the musical glue that held them all together.

This music impresses and appeals on multiple levels. Its jazzy exuberance and rhythmic vitality make you want to get up and dance. But its brainy complexity never stops teasing the mind, and its emotional intensity can really get to you. It sounds vaguely minimalistic at times but not in an "ambient" way. It takes you from limpid lyricism to the kind of jagged intensity that makes you want to run and hide. But just when you think things are getting too thorny or atonal, the composer throws a harmonic or rhythmic "hook" at you that keeps everything musically credible. These guys blew us all away. I'm still cursing myself for not bringing enough spare cash for one of their CDs.

The first of the Charleston Symphony's "Out of the Box" events came our way on Thursday evening at the Charleston Music Hall. Appearing with assorted CSO players and Resident Conductor Scott Terrell were the legendary local jazz drummer Quentin Baxter and his renowned quartet: Tommy Gill at the piano, Kevin Hamilton on acoustic bass, and Mark Sterbank on alto sax. It is this group, more than any other, that has given Charleston its niche in the global jazz scene. Quentin, as usual, was miraculous.

The ingeniously laid-out program included numbers by Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, and Bernie Miller, with musicians coming and going from the CSO. We even got an all-percussion ensemble in one number and an all-brass group (save for Baxter) in another. Classical musicians or not, they all seemed very much at home in the jazz idiom: nobody had trouble swinging.

I enjoyed the bigger ones the most: Darius Milhaud's Creation du Monde and especially Brandenburg Gate: Revisited, by American icon Dave Brubeck (who was Milhaud's student). The Brubeck piece was kind of a modern "concerto grosso," with themes and solos bouncing back and forth between the orchestra and jazz combo. In all, it was an evening to cherish and file away among favorite memories.

If the CSO intention is to attract and engage new audiences, I think they found the magic ticket here: this was the biggest (and youngest) crowd they've ever gotten in this series. Bravissimo, Quentin — I can hardly wait 'til the CSO brings you back.

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